Autofeeders 101 – What can they do for you? (And not do!)

Why should you consider a calf autofeeder? There are several reasons:
The ability to feed calves in a more biologically normal manner! Feeding lots of milk… Read more

Why should you consider a calf autofeeder? There are several reasons:
The ability to feed calves in a more biologically normal manner! Feeding lots of milk… Read more

By in Autofeeders on May 3, 2021
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Autofeeders 101 – What can they do for you? (And not do!)

Why should you consider a calf autofeeder? There are several reasons, I would like to share with you in today’s post. Moreover, you will find some advice and a lot of tips here, that might come in as handy. As always, your questions and comments are welcome and highly valuable for the growing

Biologically normal
Autofeeders provide you with the ability to feed calves in a more biologically normal manner! Feeding lots of milk twice a day at irregular intervals is NOT normal. The autofeeder enables the calf to consume smaller more frequent meals, and usually enables them to consume more earlier in life without stressing their digestive systems. Does feeding 3 or 4 quarts of milk twice a day condition calves to “slug” feed and develop bad habits later in life?

They develop a more normal behavior. Calves fed with an autofeeder are quieter, less stressed and have less adverse reactions to different situations. They also learn from each other! Earlier starter intake! 

Better labor management 
The amount of drudgery work involved in feeding calves, washing bottles and buckets is drastically reduced. You need a calf manager now and not a “calf feeder”. This person should have an interest in calf behavior, calf care, sanitation and data management. You might not save money on labor, but you will hire a more qualified person that loves their work and stays on the farm longer.

Important features
You have decided that the autofeeder is a viable alternative to your calf enterprise. What features are important?

Feeding plans 
The autofeeder allows the development of feeding programs which can mimic how the calf might receive from the nursing of the dam. The autofeeder should enable you to specify:

  1. The amount the calf can drink/day.
  2. A maximum amount they can consume at one visit.
  3. The allowed interval between meals IF they drink the maximum amount at the previous meal. If they eat all of a meal allotment, they are not allowed another meal for usually another 2 – 3 hours.
  4. If calves are fed milk replacer the solids % of the final mixture is specified. The better systems, such as those of Foerster Technik, accurately weigh the powder delivered.
  5. Whole milk can be fed also and, if desired, blended with a supplement or milk replacer powder and water to achieve the desired final mixture.
  6. Medications in either the dry or liquid form as needed.

Feeding plans can be formulated to provide a specific amount per day, increasing to a certain level and then reducing by a set amount per day to accommodate more gradual weaning which is similar to normal biology. The Foerster Technik feeder has developed a program (40Fit) which allows the calf to consume as much as desired but limits meal size and specifies the interval between meals to prevent overeating. This enables the calf to drink what they want and then begin weaning earlier in a more gradual manner which stimulates starter intake.

The Foerster Technik autofeeder performs an automatic calibration of milk replacer powder or additive with periodic manual calibration of the system. This promotes delivery of a consistent diet to the calf which is important!

Automatic calf feeders should enable automatic cleansing and sanitation of all internal surfaces up to and including the teat. This is a similar system as used with the cow milking systems. Typically, autofeeders require use of a detergent which is effective at the temperatures of the liquid diet as fed to the calf (105°F or 40°C). The system should flush surfaces, followed by cleaning with a detergent, rinsing and application of a sanitizing agent. Research show that other than flushing the teat exterior, system cleaning and sanitation should be done 3 – 4 times daily.

Measures of calf behavior 
The autofeeder should be able to record key measures of animal behavior which are used to supplement observations by the calf manager. These measures are amount consumed/day, drinking speed (ml/min), break offs ( leaving before consumption of a meal). Additional equipment available from Foerster Technik includes body weight, calf starter and water consumption and pen activity. Calf behavior data is used to alert the calf manager of calves which may need closer observation.

Data management
Calves should be identified with the standard uniform ID ear tags. This ID is cross referenced with the ear tag used by the farm to identify the calf by sight. Calf behavior data is available in multiple formats, either as lists, or graphically. Data retrieval should be available at the feeder and remotely when connected to a PC and the internet. This enables a CLOUD based data management system where selected personnel with a cell phone or internet access can access this information. This might include the calf manager, farm manager, veterinarian, consultant, equipment dealer or the equipment manufacturer or autofeeder tech service. Can health information be entered and interface with the animal’s permanent farm records system? Equipment dealers or the manufacturers tech service personnel are also able to diagnose software or hardware issues remotely.

Is an automatic calf feeding system best for your farm?
Well-designed calf autofeeder systems can enable management of the calf enterprise with the same mindset and intensity as that afforded the lactating herd. The system should not be viewed primarily as a labor-saving tool but one which enhances calf management. Feeding programs can be designed and implemented to meet the calf’s nutrient requirements during quite different periods of the preweaning period. The availability of automatically recorded data can supplement the visual observations of the engaged calf manager. The primary reason for electing to acquire this technology should not be labor saving but one which enables more efficient and effective management of calves by the manager. Success requires a commitment to adapting practices which set calves up for success which include good colostrum management, newborn calf care and the design and construction of facilities which enhance calf health.

Bob James – Calf Blogger

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